Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Business and work (page 1 of 18)

Our ideas about work and rest in the workplace

Roombot and meeting scheduling

In my study of how companies shorten their workdays, one of the things I’ve consistently seen is companies shortening meetings, and doing a number of things to make meetings more effective: requiring pre-circulated agendas and goals, sharing background material beforehand, having walking or standing meetings, and making sure that conference call phones and other tech are running smoothly before the meeting is scheduled to start, so you don’t spend the first 10 minutes looking for dry-erase markers or punching in conference codes.

They also use tools to signal when meeting times are up, or when the group only has a few minutes left. The most popular tools are kitchen timers and smartphone alarms (unless your company bans devices in meetings, which is another popular thing), but a couple have taken a more high-tech approach: using Philips Hue lightbulbs and some locally-sourced code to have the room itself signal when you should start wrapping up.

I first heard about this tool at IIH Nordic, a Copenhagen-based SEO firm that moved to a 4-day week, but others use it, too. Philadelphia design firm O3 World calls their RoomBot, and explains how their system works in this video:

It’s a cool system, but the important thing is to have some kind of external tool that announces when your time is up.

Putting REST to use at the New York Times

James Pothen, a software engineer with the New York Times, has a great piece about “ How to Concentrate in a Collaborative Workplace:”

When I first started working in an office, I worked haphazardly. I would come in, check work email, maybe chat with a colleague, start on a task, and then check Facebook or YouTube. Working this way nearly got me fired after two years. So I took the opportunity to be more intentional about what I worked on and how I worked.

What follows is my adaptation of the principles laid out in Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work.” I’ve also incorporated material from “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, and “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

I highly recommend it. It’s a nice example of how you can take the ideas from Rest and put them into practice. And everything he says makes lots of sense!

Jabra video on deliberate rest

In September when I was in Europe, I gave a talk at Jabra corporate headquarters, just outside Copenhagen (where I had some excellent food, and saw some cool cats). We shot some video of me talking about deliberate rest, and Jabra has now created a short video from it. (Sorry about the auto-play.)

As a place that makes some outstanding headsets for office use, Jabra is really interested in issues of focus and concentration in business environments, so it turned out to be a great place to talk about deliberate rest and my earlier work on contemplative computing. (I’ll confess I have no fewer than four pair of Jabra headphones– two sets that I’ve used for everyday listening, a pair of their Bluetooth earbuds, and a set of noise-canceling office headphones. They’re all awesome.) And of course they did a great job with the video!

A few months ago I was doing an Al Jazeera show, and during the sound check beforehand one of the other guests described me as “the silver gent.” I suppose I see what he meant. Mentally I don’t feel like i’ve aged in the last twenty years (I feel like fundamentally the same person I was when I was a postdoc, or first married), but I have gotten more silver.

And anyone who meets me on the road is likely to see me wearing some variation of those clothes– the black shirt and black cashmere jacket, and jeans. What can I say; one of my professors extolled the virtues of wearing black on the road, and I still dress that way out of respect for her.

WeWork, Lord & Taylor, and the death of leisure

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Ginia Bellafante has a piece in the New York Times about the sale of Lord & Taylor to WeWork, and its cultural significance.

She she notes, there’s a sad inversion at work here.

In their infancy and well into the first 80 years or so of the 20th century, department stores were largely places to pass the hours. When Lord & Taylor opened on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street it featured three dining rooms, a manicure parlor for men and a mechanical horse that could walk, trot or canter…. Today, of course, shopping is something else entirely, not a diversion but just an extension of our working or “productive” lives.

So while shopping has become less like leisure and more like work, work (or at least certain kinds of work) are trying to dress themselves up as leisure– or at least obliterate the boundaries between work and life:

“WeWork’s mission is to help people make a life, not just a living,’’ as one of its executives recently explained in a news release. The tech sensibility, which has leaked into so many other industries, imagines distinctions between work and private life as benighted. You are always working — posting to Instagram your vacation pictures in Bali, where you also happen to be sourcing materials for your new app-distributed small-furniture line — and you are always living.

So:

With the rise of the internet, shopping came to look like work, and work, in many instances, came to look like leisure, which is why WeWork’s purchase of the Lord & Taylor building has a resonance beyond the obvious.

New study: UK workers are productive 2 hours, 53 minutes a day

Vouchercloud.com, a UK-based company, just published the results of a survey of 1,989 full-time office workers in the UK  “as part of research into the online habits and productivity of workers across the nation.” (I learned about it from Canadian journalist Joanne Richard, who quotes me in an article she wrote about inefficiency in the workplace.)

This isn’t the most scientific survey so take it with a grain of salt, but it does as some interesting questions.

Do you consider yourself to be productive throughout the entire working day?

A whopping 79% of respondents said no. Though I suppose anyone who’s totally honest or totally pedantic would say “no.”

If you had to state a figure, how long do you think you spend productively working during work hours on a daily basis?

According to the company, “the average answer… [was] ‘2 hours and 53 minutes’ of actual productivity in the workplace across all respondents.”

This of course is the big headline-grabber, but an average of self-reported numbers should be treated not as an exact figure, and more of an indicator of how productive people feel, or how much work they think they’re able to get done. However, I think what we can take away is that most people feel like they’re not especially productive for most of the day.

What are you guilty of spending time doing during the working day rather than working productively?

This is where things get interesting. Respondents were given the choice to select non-work activities that they engaged in, and asked to estimate the amount of time they spent at each one. Here are the results:

Checking social media: 47% (44 minutes)
Reading news websites: 45% (1 hour 5 minutes)
Discussing out of work activities with colleagues: 38% (40 minutes)
Making hot drinks: 31% (17 minutes)
Smoking breaks: 28% (23 minutes)
Text/instant messaging: 27% (14 minutes)
Eating snacks: 25% (8 minutes)
Making food in office: 24% (7 minutes)
Making calls to partner/friends: 24% (18 minutes)
Searching for new jobs: 19% (26 minutes)

What jumps out at me is how many of these activities are actually forms of self-distraction. They’re not Facebook luring you away with a carefully-engineered dopamine hit, but the siren call of the break room and another cup of tea, or a check to see how Sunderland is doing or to catch up on the latest Brexit news. (At least one vending machine company has interpreted the survey to mean that having vending machines at work improves productivity.)

Do you think that you could get through the working day without partaking in any distractions?

65% said no, they couldn’t, but 54% also argued that because distractions make work “more bearable,” it was a net positive.

The specific numbers are less interesting, I think, that the general trends the survey reveals: people find lots of ways to be distracted or self-distract in the modern workplace.

As Joanne Richard’s piece mentions, I’ve been doing some work looking at companies that are experimenting with shorter working hours (and also naps), talking to CEOs about why they implement these programs, and what their companies get out of them. (These are all small firms, or in a couple cases, local offices of big companies.) One of the things that motivates all of them is a recognition that most offices today are really inefficient places: for all our talk about overwork, and our belief that long hours are an essential if regrettable part of modern life, the reality is that much of that expansion comes from poor planning, inefficient or distracting use of technology, or a recognition among employees that the work they’re doing isn’t terribly meaningful or engaging.

So if two hours a day are wasted in meetings and checking email (which a couple reputable sources estimate), why not control those and let people go home early? Better to design a workday that is shorter, more engaged and challenging, and leaves people with more free time.

“overwork is just one tool to fight deadlines, and not a solution of first resort”

I’ve been looking at companies that are fighting back against the culture of overwork (mainly in software, Web development and video games), and this morning came across this terrific piece by veteran developer Keith Fuller, “Fixing overwork isn’t easy, but it’s the best investment we can make“:

It’s not reasonable to suggest we make games in the complete absence of long work weeks. Of course there will be times when a measure of overwork takes place due to consensus or company ground rules. But what I would suggest as a guiding principle is this: First show me the discipline to adhere to a no-overwork policy, then we’ll talk about extending grace in exceptional times. It shouldn’t happen the other way around.

This line also jumped out at me:

Overworking any employee is bad enough, but the situation becomes even more evil when you start with people who have addictive personalities and then reward their worst impulses.

I was recently on a Malaysian radio show, talking about hobbies and deep play, and one of the points I made was exactly this: that lots of Nobel laureates (to take one population of high achievers in strenuous, competitive fields) have serious hobbies, in part because they know that otherwise they’d default to spending all their time in the lab, and that would be bad. They like their work, and often have a lot of control over their time and the resources to pursue whatever they want; but even they recognize that they’ll do better work if they do other things.

Anyway, go read the whole piece.

Entrepreneurs reading Rest

Recently I noticed several entrepreneurs and career coaches who’d reviewed Rest, and wanted to capture some links to their work.

  • Business coach Curtis McHale (his motto is “Running a successful business should leave time to be a good dad!”) argues that “The Long and Strong Career You Want is Marked by Rest.” “[D]o I recommend you read Rest? Yes, I do. More than that, I recommend you incorporate times of no work into your day. I recommend you build in weeks away from anything digital. If you can read this book and put its ideas into practice, you’re going to get more done and have longer to contribute to your field in a meaningful way.
  • Vancouver, Washington-based filmmaker and entrepreneur Chris Martin talks about rest and recovery on his Getting Work to Work podcast. He has a shrewd observation about learning to “press the reset button” on your life, and the particular challenge entrepreneurs and founders face in learning to rest.
  • “Most projects that change the world take at least 10 years,” Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong writes in his post about Rest on Medium, “so practicing the rest skillset feels important for anyone who wants to have an impact.” Good point! (Also: “I’ve see so much material out there about work, it feels like the other side of the coin, rest, has often been overlooked.” You’re welcome!)
  • Ovidijus Okinskas takes time off from writing about Java and PDF on the IDR Solutions blog to talk about Rest. “I personally found it can open you up to the ways the mind works and recovers,” he says, and “can completely alter your outlook on how you should treat the two supposed ‘opposite forces’ and allow them to benefit each other.”
  • Sustainable leadership expert David Ducheyne, Chief People Officer for Securex, suggests that “maybe we need to train (young) people in the art of rest, because many people seem to have lost it….. [I]f we talk about sustainable employability, rest might be the key to combine health and competence development.”
  • Expat career advisor Tim Rettig writes about “Why All Expats Need Regular Periods of Conscious Rest.” Most expats are not only caught in the usual cultural traps of long hours and performing busyness; “the problems… [of] adapting to a new environment come in addition to the existing problems of the modern society.” So perhaps more than most people, “Expatriates need to plan consciously during which blocks of time they work or expose themselves to other forms of stress, and during which blocks of time they make the space for conscious ways of resting.”

Of course, it’s always flattering to see people say nice things about your work, but what’s really gratifying is to see them thinking about how to put it to use. The Roman poet Horace argued that poetry should be dulce et utile, beautiful and useful (or a sweet and useful thing, depending on your preferred translation); it’s always great to see readers take a book seriously enough to apply it to their own lives.

Saiid Kobeisy talks about the importance of rest in Vogue Arabia

One of the greatest things about a book like REST is that it goes all kinds of places I don’t, and gets picked up by all kinds of interesting people. Case in point: Lebanese fashion designer Saiid Kobeisy, the subject of the Fall 2017 Haute Couture Review in Vogue Arabia.

After talking about this season’s line (which features “Light structured dresses, high collars, playing on volumes, with a touch of gold, and ivory cream colors,” in case you were wondering), the interviewer asks what he’s been reading. Kobeisy replies:

I’ve recently been flipping through the pages of a book entitled “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. It’s about getting more work done by working less. In our busy lives, rest is defined by the absence of work, but in this book, the author explains about “active rest” which means doing activities while resting and not necessarily sleeping or watching TV. Dismissing rest suppresses our ability to think creatively and truly recharge. So I’m definitely trying to fit in some “deliberate rest” in my schedule.

AWESOME.

Things to do the night before your vacation starts

A good complement to my recent discussion of vacations: this piece on Business Insider on things to do “before you jet off to some sunny shore:”

you need set your affairs in order at work.

The night before your vacation is a crucial time to prepare.

Effective planning will give you peace of mind while you’re catching some rays, and it will prevent problems from cropping up when you drag your sunburnt self back into the office in a few days.

Overwork as laziness: My latest pieces for Thrive Global

I’ve got a two-part article on Thrive Global up today, around the concept of overwork as laziness.

We think of overwork as a sign that we’re in-demand, living life to the fullest, fulfilling the Protestant Work Ethic, etc.; and as economists and sociologists have noted, in the last thirty or so years, long hours have even become a status symbol among professionals and better-off workers.

But this is a very new way to think about overwork, as I note in part 1. For a long time, philosophers and theologians (ranging from the Roman Stoic Seneca to German theologian Josef Pieper) warned that overwork was a kind of laziness.

And it’s one we should abandon. In fact, as I explain in part 2, some smart companies are already doing that. They’re scaling back on working hours, and their leaders are motivated to do that in part because they’ve come to see overwork as a signal of organizational failure– not a sign that you’ve got highly-motivated employees who want to Crush It, but that you’ve got managers who don’t know how to plan and prioritize.

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